Rio 2016? The Zika Virus and The Olympics

The 2016 Rio Olympics

Amidst the political corruption, protests, spiking inflation, plummeting economy, and drastically behind-schedule development, Brazil is still set to host the summer Olympic and Paralympic Games during August and September, leaving experts skeptical of the future economic success of the Games. However, recent political scandals, which have left top politicians under investigation or jailed and led the president, Dilma Rousseff, to impeachment, have seemingly distracted the world from the more serious threat. The Zika virus, which is currently rampaging through Brazil.

The Zika outbreak has recently reached pandemic levels in Brazil

Zika virus is spread by daytime-active Aedes mosquitos, which are typically found in subtropical zones in South America. The infection itself can cause a fever similar to that of mild dengue fever, and is usually treated with bedrest, as no medication or vaccinations are currently available. The Zika outbreak has recently reached pandemic levels in Brazil, where the virus has been spreading from pregnant women to babies, resulting in microcephaly, or an underdeveloped brain, leading to abnormally small heads and severe brain and functionality problems in Brazilian infants. An increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults has also been correlated with infection levels, and research is currently underway to confirm the speculations that the virus can be transmitted sexually and through blood transfusion. To date, Brazilian health officials have linked the Zika virus to 4,759 microcephaly cases, causing health authorities to encourage safe sex and advise against pregnancy whenever possible.

The reality of the overwhelming threat and easy transmission of the Zika virus has started to hit home for health officials, athletes, and spectators entering Brazil for the Olympic Games. For athletes, the glory of competition has to be weighed against potential contraction of the virus and future health complications, but for health officials, the possibility of a worldwide health epidemic is at stake

The Brazilian strain [of Zika] is different, vastly more dangerous, and extremely understudied

This potential risk led Dr. Amir Attaran, a professor of law and public health at the University of Ottawa, to call for the games to be cancelled, postponed, or moved for five main reasons: (1) Although the number of currently confirmed cases in Rio are not as high as other states, the number of suspected cases currently sit around 26,000, the highest of any state in Brazil; (2) The virus was discovered nearly seventy years ago, however the Brazilian strain is different, vastly more dangerous, and extremely understudied; (3) The virus will inevitably spread globally given the nature of viruses, however the spread will substantially increase when 500,000 foreigners or more come to Rio and later return to their home countries, potentially bringing the disease with them; (4) When the Games help spread the virus, the development of new technologies and treatments will become infinitely harder; and (5) The continuation of the Games violates what the Olympics stand for: “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

With these reasons in mind, would any health official really recommend exposing at least half a million foreigners to a virus that can potentially infect them? The answer is no. An influx of people into the heart of a health epidemic is simply not logical or safe and may jeopardize future public health following the Games. We’ve seen the effects that the virus can have on infected individuals and their infants, and it’s already managed to be carried into many countries through travelers who have returned from South America, so continuing with the Games in Rio this summer as planned is not an ideal option for public health.

London, Beijing, Athens, and Sydney still possess Olympic villages and facilities and could take over the Games from Rio

There is a precedent for moving sporting events. The threat of the Zika virus recently moved American baseball league games out of Puerto Rico, the 1976 Winter Olympics were moved from Denver, USA to Innsbruck, Austria, and the schedule of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway changed for the first time in Olympic history. The Summer Olympics have also been moved, with the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 1906 causing the games to be moved from Rome to London two years later.  In reality, London, Beijing, Athens, and Sydney still possess Olympic villages and facilities and could take over the Games from Rio de Janeiro, exactly how Innsbruck, the 1964 host, took over from Denver for the 1976 Games. In addition, the International Olympic Committee decided in 2014 that the games could be shared between countries, which presents the possibility of sharing the games between the aforementioned countries who have previous hosted the summer Olympics.

The issue, of course, is that Brazilian officials fear the negative public perception of postponing or moving the games. Although this is something that no Olympic hosting country wants to be faced with, it may be in Brazil and the worlds’ best interest for the Brazilian Olympic organizing committee to take the first step, acknowledge the problem at hand, and come up with a solution that avoids the games being hosted in Brazil for August and September 2016 while the Zika virus is still a threat.

now there is a bigger crisis at hand that could potentially have a negative effect on international health

The reality is that Brazilian officials in no way could have predicted the severity of the Zika virus outbreak and nothing that Brazil or the organizing committee did was wrong leading up to the Olympics. Timing has just been unfortunate, and now there is a bigger crisis at hand that could potentially have a negative effect on international health. Although Rio would be a beautiful hosting city and put on a spectacular Olympic Games, in light of the current Zika threat, getting the outbreak under control and developing treatments may be advisable before the Games proceed this summer in Brazil.


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